In December, the Scottish Government published its draft budget statement for 2024/25. Buried within it are the plans to cut funding for both higher and further education in Scotland, amounting to over £100 million in total.
These cuts continue a pattern of colleges and universities having been undervalued and underfunded year after year – however, this time, it’s even worse for students.
In the past, the budget for higher and further education has failed to keep pace with inflation - meaning that even though it was raised, it was raised by a smaller sum than the inflation rate. This is also known as a ‘real terms cut’.
However, the proposed cuts in this year’s budget are ‘cash terms’ cuts - meaning that even before factoring in the significant rate of inflation, the Scottish Government is allocating less money for education than it has previously.
There are many reasons why this is disastrous, and we must work together to Stop the Cuts. Here’s just five:
1. The cuts hurt students, especially the poorest amongst us.
According to the IfS, universities received £7,610 for each Scottish student this academic year - which is around 19% less in real terms than they received a decade ago. Amid this steady decline, this year’s drastic cuts will mean that the experience and education of university students will suffer.
As for colleges, they are already struggling with a £321 million maintenance backlog as well as an earlier funding cut of 8.5% in real terms just last year.
In her statement accompanying the draft budget Deputy First Minister Shona Robison said,
“At the heart of this Budget is our social contract with the people of Scotland where those with the broadest shoulders are asked to contribute a little more.”
This is not the case when it comes to further education. Colleges provide the life-changing access to education to some of Scotland’s most deprived communities, and so the cut to their budget disproportionally impacts the most disadvantaged among us.
Flying in the face of the government’s commitment to tackle poverty, when it comes to further education, they are asking those with the least to carry the heaviest burden.
2. The cuts are already being used in attempts to justify the return of tuition fees.
Scotland, unlike the rest of the UK, has no tuition fees for domestic students, a fact former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon highlighted as one of the ‘proudest achievements’ of her government.
However, with the news of the government’s planned cuts the Guardian is reporting that:
“A number of university finance directors privately believe it is too costly, and argue some form of tuition fee, potentially means-tested, could be required to help the sector cope…”.
Scotland’s students already face enough challenges as it is and shouldn’t have to worry about fees to access their education. At a time when we should be making education more accessible to all, cuts which embolden supporters of tuition fees are a backwards step for Scotland.
3. The cuts are bad for College and University staff.
NUS Scotland is keenly aware that it is not only students that stand to suffer in the face of these proposed cuts. 2023 was a hard year for university and college staff, with many being put in the position of having to take industrial action to protect their livelihoods and working conditions.
NUS stands in solidarity with Higher and Further education staff and knows that they want to be spending their time in classrooms and lecture halls, not on the picket line.
These further proposed cuts by the Scottish Government are likely to be passed on to staff by colleges and universities. Both UCU Scotland and EIS-FELA have released statements in opposition to the proposed budget, the latter saying:
"It is frankly unbelievable that after a year of developing crisis in Further Education, the Scottish Government has decided to cut the budget of colleges to the tune of £58.7 million.
"Colleges have a vital role to play in providing quality learning opportunities to communities across Scotland, particularly working-class communities facing significant challenges, but this multi-million-pound reduction in college budgets will only serve to damage their capacity to deliver on this mission.
4. Courses are already being axed; the cuts will only make things worse.
The University of Aberdeen, in a move which has been described as an act of cultural vandalism, has recently announced plans to axe its language courses including Gaelic which has been taught there for over 500 years.
NUS stands in solidarity with staff, students and wider civil society in Aberdeen as they oppose these plans.
When announcing the course cuts, the university cited a need to reduce costs amidst financial troubles. The Scottish Government’s proposed budget would further reduce the money available to all universities and colleges, risking replicating what is happening in Aberdeen across the whole country.
The announcement even led to the French, German, Spanish and Italian consulates expressing concern and lodging protests. Which brings us to our final reason the Scottish Government must cancel their planned cuts to our education...
5. The cuts are bad for Scotland.
Scotland has long prided itself in being a country with a reputation of providing high quality education, but these short-sighted cuts put that reputation at risk.
The proposed budget cuts will hurt universities, colleges, staff, and students. They will do damage to the government’s mission of tackling poverty and closing the attainment gap.
In the 2023 programme for government Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills Jenny Gilruth said that:
“…we must do more to ensure Scotland continues to build on its reputation for innovation, high quality further and higher education, and apprenticeships, underpinned by our world-leading universities and colleges.”
The Scottish Government recognises more support is needed for higher and further education but in this budget they are choosing to provide less – if enough of us bring our voices together we can change their mind.